When South West Trains (Stagecoach PLC) held the Island Line franchise discussions were well advanced but these halted when the franchise holder changed to South Western Railway (First Group/MTR).
Claire Perry MP, the Rail Minister in 2015, made it clear that Island Line needed to become ‘more sustainable’. In responding to the consultation document initiated by South Western Railway (SWR) after it won the franchise the Steam Railway responded with a submission and a business plan which ticked the boxes of sustainability, potential cost savings and revenue growth for Island Line.
Initial discussions between the Steam Railway and South Western Railway were positive and it was believed that a solution to return steam trains to Ryde St John’s Road was feasible. Perceived benefits were the potential to increase passenger numbers on both railways by having the two operating alongside one another and also economic benefit to the St John’s area of Ryde (a deprived Council ward) and to the town of Ryde in general.
Towns that have a heritage railway either passing through or terminating see significant local economic benefits. The latest to experience this positive impact is Broadway, Worcestershire, which has recently become the new terminus of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.
It is estimated that the annual 115,000 visitors to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway generate economic benefit to the Island of £5M.
Extensive negotiations took place with South Western Railway but its vision for the Island Line operation was significantly different from that of the previous franchisee. The Steam Railway was finally offered the opportunity to run its trains on the western track between its existing terminus at Smallbrook Junction and Ryde St John’s Road with trains being ‘topped and tailed’ (a locomotive at each end of the train). This was considered not to be practical or cost effective by the Steam Railway. There are also other considerations which become relevant when heritage railway rolling stock moves onto the national network, potentially including the significant expense of installing additional safety equipment on locomotives and carriages to satisfy the requirements of the Office of Rail and Road.
The Steam Railway also explored the possibility of building its own station in the car park at Ryde St John’s Road but again this would also have proved both problematic and expensive.
Finally, South Western Railway advised the Isle of Wight Steam Railway of the costs which it would be required to pay to create the separation between the two railways and the associated infrastructure changes. These were significant and were neither financially acceptable nor sustainable. It was at this point when the Steam Railway withdrew from further discussions.
Peter Conway, Chairman of the Steam Railway said “we examined all options to return steam trains back into Ryde St John’s but, in the end, regulatory concerns and the costs involved made the project unsustainable. Our ambition remains to return steam hauled train to Ryde at some point in the future but it is unlikely to be within the term of the current South Western Railway franchise.”
Notwithstanding this, the Steam Railway welcomes the investment of £26M to fund improvements to Island Line which will help secure its future. Our existing interchange at Smallbrook junction will continue to provide public transport links with the mainland and we look forward to working with South Western Railway to develop and promote joint marketing opportunities to our mutual benefit.
17th September 2019
Steve Oates, Director and Trustee IWSR: 07774 188930
Peter Taylor, Acting General Manager, IWSR: 01983 882204